Celebrating Ayobami Adebayo, 2018 9Mobile literature prize winner

When the news first broke that the 9mobile Prize for Literature had been rested after the announcement of its 2018 three-man shortlist, the literary world literally stood still. Writers and critics, with their pens and tongues, almost started a revolution that compelled the organisers to reinstate the prize.

The 9mobile Prize for Literature (formerly known as Etisalat Prize for Literature) is for first-time fiction writers of African origin.

Prior to that time, in January 2016, Anote Ajeluorou, in his The Guardian article entitled ‘Etisalat Prize: Not a Race for Nigerian Writers’, had lamented that since the prize’s inception in 2013, “Nigeria’s fiction writers have failed to win the prize. Instead, East and Southern African writers have continued to hold the aces.”

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Fortunately, not only did a Nigerian writer win the prize in 2017; another Nigerian has also now won the 2018 edition. She is Ayobami Adebayo, with her debut novel Stay with Me.

The novel’s journey is, more or less, an odyssey. According to Adebayo, the novel “evolved from a short story I wrote after an acquaintance passed on in 2008. I read the story again in 2010 and started working on the novel a few weeks later.”

Years later, the story was shortlisted among the ‘Kwani? Manuscript Project’ —a Kenyan literary outfit that mentors African budding writers— as a work in progress in 2013, and later published as a full novel in 2017.

Adebayo once admitted in a 2013 Kwani? interview that a part of the novel was written on her mobile phone in a bus while commuting between Ojodu and Marina and Third Mainland Bridge as a bank staff in Lagos.

The 260-page novel (which is set between 1985 and 2008 in a Yoruba community in Nigeria) centres on a childless couple, Akin and Yejide. Young and educated with contemporary ideology of work and family. Everything looks perfect for the couple until Akin’s mother and aunt start pressuring them to have children, something they have been trying to do despite years of trying.

The 23 years the story’s plot spans are replete with tradition and culture, love and loss, sacrifice and compromise, and restitution and redemption.

The narrative style and the Nigerian-English dialogue are unassuming, which gives the story a magnetic effect and originality that define humanity. The rave reviews of the novel say it all. However, two would suffice here.

The Financial Times describes it as “A tale of real complexity and humanity, part psychological observation and social study.” The Times says “Adebayo unfolds the many layers of truth with insight and skill.”

This is an indication that Adebayo has in-depth knowledge of marriage, human experience and the society, and also the literary prowess to showcase them through story-telling.

The 2018 shortlist of the 9mobile Prize was released in January 2018, and the winner was expected to be revealed around March of that year, which made the critical stakeholders to reach out to prize adjudicator on its status.

The organisers had last year stated that, “We are just concluding the process of 9mobile ownership change, hence the delay in the announcement of the 2018 winner.”

After the former judging panel resigned following the company’s inaction for about a year on the prize and a new panel formed — which was chaired by Nigerian academic, Harry Garuba, and supported by Siphiwo Mahala and Doreen Baingana — Adebayo was awarded the prize at an event held at the 9moble headquarters at Banana Island in Lagos on August 8, 2019.

With this feat, Adebayo is the second African female and the first Nigerian female to win the prize.

According to the organisers, the ₤15,000-worth prize aims to serve as a platform for the discovery of new creative talent out of the continent and invariably promote the burgeoning publishing industry in Africa.

At the occasion, the acting managing director of 9mobile, Stephane Beuvelet, who was represented by the executive director, Regulatory and Corporative Affairs of 9mobile, Abdulrahman Ado, restated the company’s commitment to the prize, adding that, “we will continue our sponsorship of the prize.”

Adebayo could not hide her surprise for winning the prize.

“It was unexpected. I’m surprised because it was a very strong shortlist. The other books were very amazing. Lesley Arimah’s collection of short stories, I think, is one of the best books that were published last year. Marcus Low’s ‘Asylum’ is also really brilliant. So, it’s surprising to win the prize. I’m shocked,” she said in a media report of the award event.

Apart from the prize money, Adebayo received a Montblanc Meisterstuck pen and other several rewards. The award also came with a 9mobile-sponsored fellowship at the University of East Anglia, England where she will be mentored by Professor Giles Foden, author of ‘The Last King of Scotland’.

Coincidently and fortunately for Adebayo, the University of East Anglia was where she obtained her Master of Arts degree in creative writing and where she was awarded an international bursary for creative writing.

The other shortlisted books for the 2018 9mobile Prize are South African Marcus Low’s Asylum; and Nigerian Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky—a collection of short stories.

Previous winners of the prize since its inception include Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo (2014) with her novel We Need New Names; South African Songeziwe Mahlangu (2015) for his Penumbra; Democratic Republic of Congo’s Fiston Mwanza Mujila (2016) for his Tram 83 and Nigerian Jowhor Ile (2017) for his And After Many Days.

Apart from the 9mobile Prize, Stay with Me has been shortlisted for the Bailey Prize for Women’s Fiction and the Wellcome Book Prize. It has also been longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize. The novel was named a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, among others.

The novel has also been published by over six international publishers, both in print and in electronic formats, and has been translated into many foreign languages.

Adebayo was born in 1988 in Lagos and raised in Ile-Ife in Osun State. She holds Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees in Literature in English from Obafemi Awolowo University and another Master of Arts in creative writing from the University of East Anglia.

In 2012, she was a writer in residence at Writers Omi International (Ledig House) in New York, Ebedi Hills, Ox-bow School of Arts, among others. In 2009, her work was highly commended in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition. She is the fiction editor of Saraba Magazine. Her work has appeared in British Broadcasting Corporation, The Guardian (UK), LitHub, Farafina Magazine, among others.

Ayobami Adebayo has come a long way in her writing career. The prizes she has amassed and the wonderful reviews her work has received attest to this. Though ‘Stay With Me’ is her debut novel, there is no doubt that more interesting novels and other literary works would come from her. In fact, in her review in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani describes Adebayo’s novel as “A novel in the lineage of great works by Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.” She has made Nigeria and Africa proud, and just like the three writers she admires—Toni Morrison, Buchi Emecheta and Junot Diaz—the sky would be the starting point of her creative and literary endeavours.

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